Escape from Corfu: Second Greek island hit by wildfires as Rhodes evacuation flights begin

Unprecedented blazes ravage holiday resorts as frightened tourists seek route to safety

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Thousands more tourists had to be evacuated from Greek islands on Monday as wildfires triggered a major rescue mission in Rhodes and Corfu.

Major airlines have cancelled flights to Rhodes and have put on extra planes to bring stranded holidaymakers home.

In 24 hours, 162 fires were reported across Greece, fanned by high winds and extreme heat.

“We are at war,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told members of parliament on Monday. “The climate crisis is already here.”

Wildfires raged in Rhodes for a seventh day and blazes broke out in Corfu.

The fires, which have swept down from the mountains towards Rhodes' south-western coastal resort towns, have affected 20,000 people. In Corfu, 2,500 people have also been forced to flee from similar fires.

Greece starts evacuation of Corfu

Greece starts evacuation of Corfu

Firefighters from across the EU have been drafted in to help.

Terrified tourists have spoken of their ordeal at being forced to flee from their hotels.

Kelly Squirrel, a transport administrator from the UK, said police had ordered people from her hotel on Rhodes to evacuate.

"We had to keep walking," she said. "So we walked for about six hours in the heat."

German tourist Daniel-Cladin Schmidt, 42, had to cover his face due to the smoke as he and his young family were forced to walk for hours to reach safety.

"We are exhausted and traumatised," he said. "There were thousands of people, the buses couldn't pass, we had to walk for more than two hours.

"We couldn't breathe, we just covered our faces and moved forward."

Many tourists have been forced to seek refuge in gyms, schools and hotel conference centres.

Claire Jones and her husband Paul, both 36, were celebrating their honeymoon when they were evacuated on Saturday by coach from the Village Rhodes Beach Resort near Lardos.

“It was really quite traumatic driving to where we went because you could see everyone fleeing their hotels, and people were walking along the beaches, walking along the roads, and they had babies and small children," she said.

Police said 16,000 people had been transported from the fires and they had been forced to evacuate 3,000 by sea. Others had to flee by road or use their own transport after being told to leave the area.

Oxana Neb, 50, said the evacuation had been "very bad".

"We stayed in the hotel until the end and fire came from all sides," she said.

She joined other guests running to the beach, eventually abandoning her suitcases on the way, she said.

Questions have been raised about the response to the disaster and on Monday the British government was forced to defend itself for not discouraging its citizens from travelling to Rhodes after it sent a Foreign Office team to help holidaymakers.

“Our advice is focused on the safety of British nationals and enabling people to make an informed decision about the situation on the ground," the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

“The current situation is impacting on a limited area in Rhodes and while it’s right to keep it under review and it’s possible that the advice may change, we do not want to act out of proportion to the situation on the ground.”

He said there were no plans for the RAF's involvement to help people leave.

However, Jet2 announced on Monday it was putting on more flights to evacuate stranded holidaymakers.

Mr Mitsotakis warned parliament that the nation is facing "another three difficult days ahead" before high temperatures are forecast to ease.

British Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell said those with plans to visit the Greek islands can still go.

"There will certainly be a change in the [Foreign Office travel advice] should it be required and we watch this on an hourly basis if not on a more frequent basis,” he said.

He said it is estimated up to 10,000 British tourists are still on Rhodes and that the Foreign Office has deployed an emergency response team.

Airline reactions amid crisis

Budget airline easyJet has set up two rescue flights with 421 seats on Monday, with another on Tuesday. This comes in addition to its nine scheduled flights to the Greek island.

A spokeswoman for easyJet said the company was doing all it can to assist its customers in Rhodes and those scheduled to travel to or from the island could change their travel dates free of charge until Saturday.

Jet2 and Tui have called off all scheduled flights and holiday plans to the island for the coming week. However, empty planes will be sent to Rhodes to help with the evacuation.

British Airways' flights to Rhodes continue on schedule.

Several other flights from airlines including Ryanair were scheduled to arrive from Greece at various UK airports on Monday afternoon.

Helen Tonks described the decision by airlines to continue their usual service as “inexcusable and negligent – putting profit before safety”.

Greek Tourism Minister Olga Kafalogianni described the situation on the island as “not alarming”.

“It’s particularly important to stress that only 10-15 per cent of the Rhodes island is affected,” she said.

One of the UK's leading climate scientists Sir David King, former UK chief scientific adviser and chairman of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, said tourists planning trips to the Mediterranean should see the Greek wildfires as a “big, big warning”, with climate change set to fuel more severe blazes in future.

He said tourists needed to take care in the heat.

“If you are in one of these very warm areas and you haven’t got air conditioning indoors, you could suffer terribly – many people will die from heat stress," he said.

“There’s no coincidence at all that climate change has driven these higher temperatures, and the higher temperatures are causing the fires that are spreading."

Updated: July 24, 2023, 7:08 PM